Text Study for Luke 14:1-14 (Part Two)

I was making cold calls as a redevelopment pastor in a small town. I knocked on the door of an apartment. I heard some scrambling and shushing. The door opened a crack, and I introduced myself. I was invited in and made welcome. I learned what I could about the household and life there. I made my pitch for my hosts to check out our church. I left informational materials, my card, and sometimes a loaf of home-baked bread. I added another digit to my monthly ministry report and moved on to the next door.

Sometimes I found households with needs to which our congregation could respond. I declared with great vigor that there were no strings attached to the help we offered. But, in retrospect, I know that this declaration was not really true. No, we weren’t a “sermon and soup” sort of operation. Yet, I know that I kept a mental (and sometimes physical) tally of the responses. And I know that at least some of the people we assisted felt obligated to show up a few times in order to settle their social accounts with us.

Photo by Mat Brown on Pexels.com

That’s how the world works. And, too often, that’s how the Church works as well.

I’ve been associated with congregations engaged in wonderful ministry to, for, and with people having a variety of needs. I’m proud to have been even a small part of those efforts. Yet, I know that a frustration lurked under the surface of those ministries. Why is it that we do so much for people, and yet we rarely if ever see those same people are our worship services? And in many cases, we can document that a relief ministry in a congregation has never produced even one new member in that faith community.

We know (at least most of us) that we aren’t supposed to do this sort of work in order to be “repaid.” Yet, our irresistible internal auditors just cannot resist making the connection – or the lack thereof. If we extend care and support to someone in need, why in the world doesn’t that person respond in gratitude by giving us what we want or need? In congregations, that repayment would ideally (in the view of the congregation) come in the form of willing and even enthusiastic support of the current life and mission of the congregation.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that the church people I know do works of love for the sake of repayment in some fashion. In my experience, that is not the case. And yet, most of us have our mercenary moments, where we wonder if there will be some reward for all the work. I’ve been guilty of that sort of response more times than I can count. I’ve felt that way toward community people we’ve helped, toward parishioners I’ve served well who later disagreed with or criticized me, and toward a larger church which doesn’t always behave the way I want it to behave toward me and toward the world.

In her 2020 article in Word and World, Mandy Brobst-Renaud offers this critique (and I quote a bit at length). “The church today faces a failure of imagination,” Brobst-Renaud writes. “Having heard stories of abundant feasts, abundant life, and a God who loves the world in embarrassing excess, congregations nevertheless struggle to imagine new possibilities. In the face of dwindling church attendance, competing commitments, racism, sexism, and the desire for more people and more money, the church often responds with self-protective measures to save itself. Inviting new members or guests to our congregations often has the implicit goal of benefiting the church, Brobst-Renaud continues. “Congregations struggle to welcome those who are inconvenient guests, to sit side by side with those whose politics differ from our own, and to give the seats of honor to the poor and disenfranchised” (page 12).

We humans are biologically wired as sociological accountants. And it’s not just humans who keep track of social debt and repayment. Look at the work of anthropologists such as Frans de Waal to see reciprocal altruism at work in other species. Repaying benefits with benefits and pain with pain is the way that primate communities in particular tend to maintain social order and cohesion.

When you add that tendency toward reciprocal treatment to our human tendencies toward social hierarchy, you get the kind of situation Jesus describes in our text. “But [Jesus] also said to the one who had invited him, “Whenever you make a breakfast or supper, do not call your friends or your siblings or your relatives or your right neighbors, lest they also invite you back and make repayment to you. But rather, whenever you make a banquet, call the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; and you will be blessed, because they have nothing with which to repay you, for it shall be repaid to you in the resurrection of the just’” (Luke 14:12-14, my translation).

When Jesus tells us not to do something in a text, that certainly means that people were (and are) doing precisely that very thing. Otherwise, why bother to discourage or prohibit such behavior? We know that both then and now, we regulate our social relationships on the basis of mutual reciprocity – either for benefit or punishment. And Jesus tells his host, and us, to resist that tendency if we are to reflect the values of the Kin(g)dom of God.

It seems that Jesus doesn’t really prohibit our desire for repayment. Instead, he simply delays the repayment schedule and changes the payer. That which the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind would owe us for our hospitality – probably honor and appreciation – is promised to us as repayment “in the resurrection of the just.” It seems that the repayment then would come from God as honor and appreciation when we are judged at the end of the age.

That sounds like the worst kind of works righteousness. That sounds like giving something in order to get something in return. That sounds completely transactional – precisely the kind of spiritual life that I, for one, come to Jesus to escape. What in the world is going on here? Where is the good news in this stuff?

“The just” might be those who have kept and fulfilled God’s covenant of holiness in this life. But that seems to leave me with my accounts seriously in arrears. In my Lutheran tradition, “the just” are those who have life through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, not through their own understanding or effort. At the “resurrection of the just,” I trust that I will hear the words of God’s loving acceptance for the sake of Christ – and not because of what I have or have not done in this life. I am one of “the just” by the grace of God in Christ and not because of anything about me.

I have nothing that God needs. I have no bargaining chips. I have no collateral to place in trust against the day when I will need to pay my eternal debts. We are all beggars, as Luther declared. That much is certain. Since the currency of the Kin(g)dom of God in the New Age is grace, pure grace, and nothing but grace, then that is the currency of life among Jesus followers in this age. If we as the church are called to be the sign, instrument, and foretaste of the Kin(g)dom (and we are), then we are freed to organize our life together and our mission to the world accordingly.

Jesus’ words to his host are in the “you singular.” These verses are an intensely personal address to me and to anyone who answers the call to follow Jesus. All of our social currency is revealed as counterfeit. Jesus urges us to stop passing out spiritual funny money as we order our relationships with one another and in the larger world. Privilege, position, power, and property are tokens of that spiritual funny money. We may have deceived ourselves into using them as markers of value in this age, but they will be worthless in the age to come. Yet, we in the church continue to rely on such fraudulent markers of value to guide and direct our mission priorities.

Brobst-Renaud helps us to see how important it is for preachers to connect our text to the parable of the Great Banquet that follows. Whether you should read it aloud at worship is up to you. But we must consider it in our preparation and reflection.

“The parable of the Great Banquet exposes the church’s tendency to invite and welcome a particular demographic of people,” Brobst-Renaud writes. “Though congregations may desire the vision of the feast, political, economic, and racial divisions prove more tempting. Luke 14:15–23 inspires our confession: the church often desires to fill the banquet hall with people from whom the church expects to benefit and people who are easy to welcome. The parable of the Great Banquet reveals the church’s tendency to welcome those who already know the ‘rules’ of engagement and whose welcome extends only to those already present” (page 14).

Will I keep the good news of the Great Banquet to myself? Will I invite and welcome only those who will keep me in my comfort zone and provide potential repayment of my invitation and hospitality? Or will my life begin to look like the eschatological banquet on offer for all?

2 thoughts on “Text Study for Luke 14:1-14 (Part Two)

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